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On the beatific Friday afternoon before Labor Day this September, some 500 new UMass students and their families gathered for a reception at the Mullins Center after a day of moving into their campus quarters.
The summer-long drought that had left the Valley uncommonly parched would be interrupted, two days later, by a fearsome and protracted storm that marked, and probably marred, moving-in day for thousands of other UMass students. But these 500-plus were lucky: as one of the amenities afforded to students of Commonwealth College, the university's new and expanded honors program, they'd gotten to move in early, and the sun shone all day long.
Casually dressed and clutching their maroon Commonwealth College folders, the hundreds of students, parents, siblings, and friends filled several sections of the huge indoor arena. Seated among them, easy to distinguish in bright purple T-shirts embellished with the phrase "The Spirit of Leadership, Setting the Pace," were 100 student mentors, themselves honors students and members of the fledgling honors college. Enthusiastic college boosters all, the mentors represent another of the college's amenities. They had been lending a hand all day as the freshmen moved in, and would be keeping in touch to help smooth their way as the semester progressed.
On the way to the special diploma they will earn if they stay with the program, Commonwealth College students may choose to live in "learning communities" of their peers: honors floors in Field, Grayson, Webster or Dickinson halls on Orchard Hill. The honors classes they will take about a quarter of their total credits will be limited to twenty-five students. They can also take advantage of "Pizza and Prof nights," special dinners and colloquia, and expanded and more personal advising services. While Commonwealth College receives separate state funding which in no way affects the university's general operating budget, the campus is heavily invested in these students. Their choice of UMass represents a milestone in the university's campaign to gain recognition as a world-class institution, to forever shed its reputation as a safe state school, a school of last resort.
Although any student who achieves a 3.2 grade point average may join Commonwealth College later, those who enroll as incoming students have already earned the description irritating to some of "best and brightest" in their class. They've not only graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes but have scored at least 1300 out of a possible 1600 points on their SAT exams. Their mean high school GPA is an impressive 3.9 out of 4.0. Their SAT scores averaged 1314, and they ranked in the top six percent of their high school classes. Though 456 are Bay-Staters fifty-two of them President William Bulger's "University Scholars," offered full scholarships as valedictorians and salutatorians of their high school classes as a group the final cohort of 574 entering students represents twenty-three states and twelve countries.
Twenty tables covered with white linens dotted the floor of the arena, and servers were readying the steamtrays and hors d'oeuvres. "Of those to whom much has been given, much is expected," Linda Nolan, Commonwealth College's interim dean, was saying over a microphone at the podium, quoting another apostle of excellence, John Kennedy. High above, as Nolan spoke, flew pennants bearing the names of former UMass basketball giants Julius Erving and Lou Roe students similarly invested with the university's expectations whose talents have since carried them far.
Indeed, Nolan and others often invoke varsity sports when called upon to defend Commonwealth College from charges of elitism. It's a tag that has dogged the project since university officials first announced plans to eventually build a $15 million teaching facility in the Orchard Hill section of campus. Earlier this year, Northampton's Daily Hampshire Gazette editorialized that while it had always supported the concept of the college, the idea of a separate building was disturbing when so many buildings on campus are run-down. Opinions in the Daily Collegian were less temperate: One letter-writer suspected UMass of "trying to create a master race."
Nolan questions why the same criticisms aren't leveled at the university's high-profile sports teams, whose members receive such perquisites as scholarships and tutoring and are housed together on campus. "Actually, the athletic program is more elitist than Commonwealth College, because most of us could never make an elite team," Nolan says. By contrast, she argues, anyone who studies hard enough can get into the honors college if they want to take on the work. To graduate with the college's imprimatur, students must demonstrate "foundation skills" in written and oral communication; take ten honors classes, which are more demanding than typical courses; and complete a thesis or other "culminating experience" of a scholarly nature.
"Actually, they don't even need to do that," says Nolan of non-honors students. "Anyone can choose to take an honors course." Over three-quarters of honors courses have non-honors enrollees, and the infusion of $1.75 million in state aid has allowed the honors college to more than double the number of such courses from 107 to 250. Finally, Nolan stresses that three-quarters of the classes the honors students take are general university courses. Fears of separate and elevated status are groundless, she says.
Arthur Stern, a professor emeritus of biology who has been with the honors program since 1982 Nolan came aboard in 1993 says the charge of elitism infuriates him. "A 3.2 average I don't think that's elitist," he says. "It's attainable." Stern, who has a paternal, urban-folksy air about him, wears his emotions on his sleeve when it comes to the new college. As both an academic counselor and a teacher of honors students over the years, he says, what he keeps remarking, is the way they keep looking for more work.
"These kids are really wonderful; they want to do so much," says Stern. "I think we should let them. Something that gets me very upset in our society is that, outside of academics in sports, for example if people excel, they get top dollar. That's OK in our society. But it isn't OK to excel in academics because you do additional work. It doesn't make sense to me what all the noise is about."
Those concerned about ethnic and economic diversity see problems, however. Though Commonwealth College's glossy brochures and promotional video feature minority honors students prominently, very few are actually represented in its inaugural class. Of the 574 freshmen only three are black; eight are Hispanic, and thirty-eight are Asian.
And not all of the eighty-four high school valedictorians and salutatorians attending UMass as part the University Scholars program were accepted into the honors college; some of these high-achieving high school students did not attain the requisite SATs.
Therein lies the problem, according to Nelson Acosta, director of the university's office for African American, Latin American, Native American and Asian (ALANA) Affairs. SAT scores have been shown to be closely correlated to students' financial means and to the financial means of their school districts. Financially well-off districts better prepare students for the exams; well-off students can also take preparatory courses that can raise their scores by over 100 points. Acosta supports the idea of the college, but thinks officials ought to examine the admissions policy, and consider fine-tuning it so that it takes variables like financial background into account.
Julius Lester, a professor of Middle Eastern and Judaic Studies, who is black, says he is not particularly troubled by the low number of black students in the college this year. High-achieving minority students can choose to go to college pretty much anywhere they want, Lester said. At the same time, the university should continue to improve its recruitment efforts. If minority representation is as weak in a few years as it is now, "Then it would be a problem," Lester said.
At the Mullins Center reception this September afternoon, however, the talk wasn't of elitism. It was mostly of leaving home for the first time, for the students and, for the families, of seeing their children off. Nolan tells parents that she, too, has a freshman entering UMass.
Melissa Beasley, brand-new coordinator of the learning communities in Orchard Hill, tells students she, too, is new to campus, having arrived in Amherst just three weeks ago. "My advice to you is, carry a map with you wherever you go," says Beasley. Senior communications major Stacy Palozie, a peer mentor, recalled her own moving-in day three years ago. She couldn't believe how big and confusing the campus was and she wasn't sure she and her roommate would get along. They didn't, and went their separate ways, but she got used to the campus. "It's been my experience that most things at UMass work out this way," Palozie said. "Get help when you need it," she told the freshmen. "You really need to have fun," she added.
Art Stern talked about his three grown daughters who used to tell him to walk in front of them not with them at the mall, and to flash his headlights when he came to pick them up at restaurants. His middle daughter played soccer in college, he told the parents, and he and his wife attended every match, but only recently did his daughter sit him down to "tell me how it had given her such a lift" to see her parents in the stands. "I want you to know that's how your kids feel about you," Stern said. Several mothers wiped tears from their eyes.
Half an hour later, seated outside the Mullins Center on a bench in the waning late afternoon sun, Janice and Bob Constantine of Everett reflected on their son Rob's decision to come to UMass and Commonwealth College. The oldest of their three children, Rob had applied to several small private colleges, representatives of which called him up and invited him to visit. Like all of the entering
Commonwealth students, Rob applied to UMass not knowing until he was accepted that he had simultaneously been accepted to the college.
Though Bob Constantine graduated from UMass himself in 1973, he and Janice did not encourage Rob to come here, because they thought a smaller setting would suit him better. But, Rob who didn't follow any of the advice they gave him, Janice dryly observed told them the day before the acceptance deadline at the other colleges that UMass was his choice.
Rob likes both history and science, and "I think he felt the university offered more majors," Janice said. As for Bob, he recalled leaving the house for work the morning Rob told him he wanted to go to UMass; though he'd wanted his son to choose a smaller college, a bright side was beginning to dawn on him. "I'm walking down the street thinking, 'This means it's going to be $10-12,000 instead of $20-30,000 a year. Maybe this is not so bad.'"
Janice said she just hopes Rob will find a community of friends who will motivate him. "My hope is that he'll get more personal attention in Commonwealth College," she said.
"I guess it's a matter of his own maturity" added Bob. "Whether he takes the bull by the horns and seizes the day."
"This is where it should be" Applying herself to her studies was more than academic for Linda Nolan, graduate alumna of UMass Amherst, director since 1993 of its honors program, and interim dean of Commonwealth College while a nationwide search for a permanent dean is underway.
A Native American Crow who grew up in Central Pennsylvania in a setting she describes as rife with alcoholism and unemployment, Nolan says she started to like science in about the third grade. By seventh grade she had decided to become a microbiologist.
"I think science gave me a feeling of the certainty of life," said Nolan in an interview in her Goodell office last summer. "I was turned off by the social conditions in which I lived; science gave me some predictability and hope."
After undergraduate work in microbiology at Penn State, the petite and fastidious Nolan earned her Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry at UMass. Specializing in the chemotherapy of tropical diseases, especially the protozoan diseases leishmaniasis and malaria, she did much of her work at Amherst College. As a result she can "compare and contrast" the two campuses, she says. "At Amherst they'd bring in Nobel laureates and have fireside chats. That's the kind of thing I want to do here."
Nolan came to the honors program in 1993 from the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, where she's a member of the environmental health sciences faculty. Biologist Arthur Stern, who had been with the program since 1982, says her advocacy was crucial to the founding of Commonwealth College.
"Honors started out here as a much smaller program," Stern said. "I thought of it as a family-type operation." Nolan, however, "saw some models out there she wanted to strive towards. She wanted to expand."
In 1997 the state Board of Education initiated the idea of an honors college somewhere in the commonwealth as a way of enhancing the entire state system. The college could very well have ended up somewhere else, Stern says. "North Adams" the former North Adams State College, now the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts "was very active" in lobbying to house the new and expanded program.
Although Nolan emphasizes the critical roles played by Chancellor David Scott and Vice Provost Norm Aitken, Stern says it's due to her determination that Commonwealth College is here today. "Linda got us all together and said, 'We have this university honors program already, this is where it should be.'" MC